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Books that unveil the beauty in life’s bleakness

Marching season in Belfast. Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty

Marching season in Belfast. Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty

December 19, 2018   4 mins

If it’s a straight dose of December cheer – or ‘up-lit’ – that you’re after, these might not be the recommendations for you. The books that grabbed my attention most powerfully this year often deal with characters who try to escape the grim roles that are handed to them, to struggle out from beneath the potentially crushing weight of society. The more comforting news, however, is that sometimes they do rather well.

It only struck me some time after reading two superb books on the Booker shortlist this year – Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black and Anna Burns’ Milkman – that they had something in common: both draw much of their force from the protagonist’s watchful, wary navigation of looming threats. They reveal this, however, using completely different styles.

Washington Black first unfurls in a Barbados sugar plantation in 1830: its story is told in the first person, through the eyes of Wash, who is an enslaved boy of 10 or 11 when the story starts with the ominous arrival of a “tall, impatient, sickly” new master. Wash senses evil: “He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much.” Edugyan’s writing style is poetic and clear, with an ear for the verbal formality of the era: the brutality of slavery seeps through the elegant prose.

One piercing aspect of this book – particularly in the pages before Wash flees the plantation – is its understanding of how keenly sharp a sense of vigilance is needed to survive in a brutally untrustworthy world. Small errors of judgement might lead indirectly to violent beatings or worse; the faintest danger must be scented far in advance of its arrival. Fear is written in the involuntary responses of the body, even before it is clarified in the mind: “I felt the soft tremor of my hands in my lap.”

When an older white man, Mister Philip, compels Wash to accompany him to an isolated spot and then proceeds to shoot himself, the thing that really terrifies Wash is not “the sudden violence, which had been with me since birth, but from the terrible fact that I alone had been present at the death of a white man”. With an unforced touch, the depth of slavery’s internal reach is conveyed. Escape, when it comes, is all the more welcome.

The 18-year-old female protagonist of Milkman inhabits an unnamed city and time, but one that looks and feels very like 1970s Belfast, where the author grew up in the thick of the Troubles. The narrator, known only as “middle-sister”, has much more freedom to steer her fate than Wash, of course, but she too must be vigilant: she moves in a volatile community, mined with potential violence, where the constant slosh of rumour and grudges can suddenly harden into open threat.

When a powerful paramilitary known only as “Milkman” begins to stalk her, a complex weight of judgements descends upon her. Burns’ mode of writing is radically different from that of Edugyan: nerviness is baked into the style, which is full of concealments, layered considerations and circumlocutions, the highways and byways of a mind under intensifying stress. Real names are not revealed, and nor are those of terrorist organisations – they are “renouncers” or “defenders” – and the steady warping of domestic life is signalled by slick piles of murdered dogs and a headless cat.

The reviewer in the New York Times called Milkman “interminable” and “wilfully demanding and opaque” – but I had quite the opposite experience: I found it consistently gripping and darkly funny. Perhaps, being from Belfast myself, both its cadences and its caginess were more immediately familiar. There’s still a bit in many of us from that city that – when asked too forward a question – instinctively responds: “Who wants to know?”

For those who, following Milkman, have an appetite for another book set in Belfast, I can recommend rediscovering Brian Moore’s brilliant 1955 novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, about a Catholic spinster struggling to stay afloat in fraying circumstances, as acutely poignant a portrait of loneliness as I have ever read.

Two other honourable mentions: one is Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, translated from the German by Damion Searls. I’m still in the midst of it: at nearly 2,000 pages, with 367 chapters, it’s a behemoth of a book, but worth the commitment. The novel charts a year – between 1967 and 1968 – in the New York life of Gesine Cresspahl, a German émigré, and her young daughter Marie, as arguments rage over Vietnam; in parallel, it recounts the story of Gesine’s family during the 1930s in Jerichow, a small town in Germany. Anniversaries is a huge feat of the imagination, dense with vivid, criss-crossing detail and moral complexity: every part of history that Johnson’s pen touches springs to life.

The other pleasure was Christopher Howse’s Soho In The Eightiesan affectionate but enjoyably clear-sighted portrait of the wilfully eccentric, louche drinkers – linked to a variety of professions – who were so often bolted to bar stools in Soho boozers such as The French House and The Coach & Horses. They included Jeffrey Bernard, the former author of the Spectator’s ‘Low Life’ column, who became famous nationwide for his wit and disintegration. Howse, who drank among them, has a wonderful turn of phrase himself: he describes one filthy little pub, the Kismet, as “like drinking in a badly run public lavatory”. The ‘characters’ would have grown tedious at times in real life, I suspect: many of them enjoyed giving their well-worn catchphrases repeated outings. But there was also badinage, camaraderie, feuds and idiosyncrasies aplenty, and a kind of purity to their habitual recklessness. In an era of rampant offence-taking and aggressive public piety, this book is a welcome blast of smoky air.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.


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